After my last post on the Consumer Review Fairness Act and protecting a person’s right to complain, I came across this story which highlights the dangers of complaining too much—especially about your employer’s customers. Tamlynn Yoder, a server at an Outback Steakhouse in Florida, lost her job when she complained on Facebook that a customer, a local mega-church, failed to tip her for its large $735 takeout order when a volunteer picked it up at the restaurant.
I wasn’t shocked to learn that Yoder was only 25 years old. It seems that millennials have rightly earned the title of the “overshare generation,” i.e., providing far more information than is needed or wanted, on social media. As someone twice her age who remembers the world before the internet transformed it (mutated it?), I’m mystified why so many young people feel compelled to publicly disclose every aspect of their lives online—and are then surprised to learn their actions have real world consequences. Perhaps privacy really is dead. What’s interesting here though, is that Yoder didn’t actually mention where she worked in her Facebook post (at least not in that particular one). A friend of hers saw the post and told her to delete it. Good call. But….not before he offered to call the church about its failure to tip, which he did. Full stop.
The word “chutzpah” comes to mind. So does the word “entitlement.” Did her friend—probably also a millennial—actually think this was a good idea? Did Yoder? Did either of them believe that Outback was not going to find out? And if so, did they assume that the restaurant was going to side with a server as opposed to a mega-church customer and its parishioners who may eat there on a regular basis? This inability to think through a foreseeable short-term outcome is another generational chasm that’s difficult for me to grasp at times. But then again, I was never a part of the “everyone gets a trophy for playing” generation either…
Anyway: Was Outback too harsh by terminating Yoder and not just warning or suspending her first? Maybe, but that’s not the point. She was an at-will employee and could be fired for just about any reason. Many companies have social media policies like Outback (and if they don’t, they should!). Who can blame the restaurant? If companies didn’t have these policies in place and enforce them, it would have been the restaurant—the whole chain, actually—subject to a viral story claiming that it didn’t protect its customers’ information or identity. How would you feel if you were identified as the supposed cheapskate and held up to public scrutiny and ridicule, whether rightly or wrongly? So much for a simple and relaxing dinner out. What public blowback would Outback have received if it didn’t fire her?
It’s one thing deriding someone for leaving a racist or homophobic message on a server’s receipt (not that full disclosure would have been any less appropriate). It’s quite another to simply not tip, which is unfortunately common. While I like to think this distinction seems clear, the internet has spawned a whole generation of people who apparently can’t tell the difference; and all of whom can then engage in a coordinated campaign of en masse harassment against the presumed tightwad. Might you as the customer be just a little upset at the restaurant who allowed its server to disclose that information for all to see? Or at the very least, disclose it without consequence?
It’s often a no-win scenario–someone, somewhere will get bad press, and usually more than just one person. Indeed, according to the Washington Post, Yoder’s story “drew fire from four factions: 1. people outraged that people don’t tip on takeout; 2. people outraged that someone would expect a tip for takeout; 3. people who wanted to boycott Outback for firing the server; and 4. people who were eager to call out what they viewed as hypocrisy from the church.” Why not a faction against oblivious church volunteers? Or one in favor of hiring Yoder in the interests of social justice? Oy.
Public relations consequences are one thing, but legal ones are another; and the two don’t often walk hand-in-hand in my experience. So in this instance I tend to side with protecting the customer’s information—which means defending the restaurant—given that my profession requires me to protect a client’s information (a professional bias, perhaps?). Corporate social media policies are designed to have legal consequences for the employees who violate them. In some cases, the penalties can be as benign as a verbal “don’t ever do that again.” More often than not though, the viral nature of certain infractions force a company’s hand and require a more serious sanction such as termination, which all well-written policies should provide for.
As I’ve often advised clients, their social media policies should spell out very clearly what’s prohibited and what’s not given the breadth of content that people post. The policies should also provide some written and concrete industry-specific examples. In this instance, the abundance of restaurant receipt stories which have surfaced over the years should motivate all restaurants to update their policies accordingly, if they haven’t already. And needless to say, while the policy must be in writing and signed by the employee, a verbal explanation of what’s prohibited is a good idea as well—especially because people don’t always read what they’re signing <gasp!>.
The policies should also realistically take into consideration the average age of the company’s or industry’s worker when they are being formulated. This doesn’t mean that the policy or its implementation should be age-specific—as a company could possibly run afoul of age discrimination laws—but only that as a generational matter, distinctions exist between a 50 year-old and a 25 year-old where social media usage is concerned. And in the restaurant industry, there’s likely to be a disproportionate number of young people employed in it. According to one study, the average age of restaurant servers is 29.8 years. That should provide some insight when devising a policy and prohibiting certain types of conduct given the constantly shifting landscape of social media platforms. Most young people are closely attuned to these changes and are earlier and more fervent adopters than their older counterparts.
For example, a recent 2018 Pew Research Center study estimated that 88% of people aged 18 to 29 use at least one social media site. For those aged 50 to 64, usage drops to 64%. While 64% is not insignificant, keep in mind that social media usage by itself doesn’t necessarily equate to oversharing. This study didn’t evaluate the nature of the content being posted. I suspect that a 25 year-old is sharing much different content (and more of it) than what a 50 year-old shares. Many of us old-school, pre-internet troglodytes still remember what it’s like to not shout out every daily detail of our lives from the rooftops; we’ve learned by now (hopefully) that sometimes less is more.
Back to poor Tamlynn Yoder. There’s no allegation she gave the church unsatisfactory service. By all accounts Yoder was a diligent and dedicated employee. And she claims that she didn’t just carry the food out to the car, but spent a while preparing the order also—and $735 is a large order—to the detriment of her earning tips from other customers. The church should have given her something at that time, but it didn’t (until after she got fired, that is; some church members then gave her some money). While traditional church doctrine may require suffering before sustenance, Outback’s company doctrine requires temperance before pride. Yoder used poor judgment when she ranted on social media. Outback was justified in firing her.
Despite being out of a job that she liked for an industry she wants to remain in, Yoder proudly stated to a reporter that she would “probably still do it the same way today. I wouldn’t change anything.” Sigh. Even her recalcitrance gets the overshare treatment. I wonder what her potential new employer with a potential new social media policy will think after hearing this. In the legal business, that’s what we call a “red flag.” Ah, millennials. We lawyers will be very busy indeed.
If you have any questions about social media policies and what your company’s policy should contain, feel free to contact me.
© 2018 Daniel A. Batterman